Want to understand the power structures of the artworld in a year like no other? Click here to view 2020’s Power 100 in full.
There was a point earlier this year, as death tolls mounted and various parts of the world lurched in and out of variously strict lockdowns, when it seemed as if the only thing that 2020 had demonstrated was that no human really had any power at all. As exhibitions, biennials and art fairs postponed or cancelled, it started to look as though anyone who made it onto ArtReview’s Power 100 would have been there simply by virtue of being located in a geographical region that allowed them to stay open, or that let them go out, even, or because they had managed, in whatever way, to be involved in putting on an exhibition of some sort. Or, more likely, that this list would consist of a virus, and nothing else. A nonhuman entity, repeated 99 times. (Although that would have been nicely in tune with the highfalutin end-of-artworld thinking.) In that sense, 2020 is the year that showed us how powerless we all are. Under the circumstances, ArtReview would have then made holiday plans for this month. If it could have gone anywhere.
The Power 100 has always been an attempt to track the forces that shape art in the contemporary moment. It’s neither about building egos or backslapping, nor is it a manifesto. Its primary function is to track who or what is influencing the art that’s being made today. A snapshot, if you like, that seeks to highlight what’s going on in the artworld and who is providing it with impetus. Part science, part instinct, it operates according to the following criteria: are the individuals on the list influencing the kind of art that’s being produced and being made visible (invariably not the same thing)? To what extent does their influence extend beyond the local to the global? And how active have they been in demonstrating their influence over the past 12 months? And perhaps this year, more than any of the other past 18 years of the Power 100’s existence, how in tune is the artworld with the real world in which it exists? Which, to some degree, might be a reflection, or the sound, of certain bubbles having been burst. But despite what you hear, 2020 has not only been about the effects of COVID-19. Things have been in motion, both because of the virus and because of the way in which it has exposed ongoing societal problematics. And so ArtReview’s list has been in motion too.
The world of art, like the real one (pop!), has had cause to reflect on its part in the creeping euthanasia of individual and collective identity that has accompanied globalisation (as much as it has, in the past and the present, fascism, imperialism and neoimperialism of various types), its double standards and structural prejudices in relation to race and gender that have operated for errr… in various ways forever. As economies shrink, workers are furloughed or terminated (to use the American idioms), artists’ revenue sources dry up, galleries go out of business, museums face permanent closure and biennials and art fairs don’t happen, questions have been raised about what and whom art is for. And, on a more basic and individual level, it’s forced many of us to think more deeply about why and to what extent any of us misses going to see it. Now that the airmiles are gone.
As for ArtReview, it has always believed that it provides a space in which issues and realities can be juxtaposed, recast, reimagined and debated; a space in which minds can be changed, opinions reshaped. Hopefully safely, without anyone getting beaten, suffocated, shot or imprisoned. As much as the place and role of art is challenged in many ways right now, it provides a potentially perfect forum in which those challenges can be explored and discussed. That it’s not always safe and not always perfect is, of course, something that impacts on ArtReview’s list. And before you hit the keyboard or smartphone, ArtReview’s not saying it’s perfect either. Nor that it’s an ultimate judge. It’s not its fault if people believe that to be the case.
Germany’s latest (at the time of going to print, at least) lockdown saw museums shuttered as health hazards while commercial galleries remained open, having been designated retail shops. So much for art for art’s sake. In other parts of the world, galleries have been more closed than open, in some parts a form of normal has returned faster than elsewhere. But despite a welcome embrace of digital distribution, the fact remains that the impact of galleries and institutions in terms of the physical display of art has been markedly less than in the past. Elsewhere, questions were raised about how useful art actually was within societies and nations that were stripping life down to something approaching the bare essentials. A June survey in Singapore’s Sunday Times ranked ‘artist’ as the number one nonessential job. In Europe, Britain’s finance minister, Rishi Sunak, talked in November about only being able to save ‘viable jobs’. Challenged about what this meant for musicians, artists and actors, he replied in a manner that’s normal for politicians, saying everything and nothing: ‘everyone’s having to adapt’.
This list is put together by a network of around 20 artworld insiders and outsiders located around the world. Under normal circumstances their paths would cross, some of their experiences would be shared, but in the current scenario that’s not been the case. Everyone has had to adapt, and it would be fair to say that this list has been put together in a year in which the experiences of contributors to this list have been more divergent than normal. Even as news, both fake and real, seems to circulate in various forms of media faster than ever before. Whether it concerns elections and murders and racial injustice in the US or Europe, extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, border disputes or the suppression of free speech in Hong Kong and many other places around the world. Of course, those of us who can access it keep track of art happenings online, but attention is increasingly focused on art that’s local, that’s to hand, now that we can no longer really chase it around the world. In accordance with that, this year’s list includes a greater emphasis on the circulation of ideas and values (about justice, equality, ways of living, our relationship with the environment and basic human rights, to name just a few), and the way in which they, as opposed to works by individual artists or artist groups, are changing how we think about and engage with art. The old cliché about it all starting with the artist doesn’t really hold; perhaps it never did. The Power 100 has always represented shifting values (and ways of valuing art) and changed points of view. Galleries and museums are, one way or another, and sometime or other, bound to bounce back.
The nominations received from ArtReview’s network of nominators are then synthesised into a global list. Perhaps this year, for the reasons given above, that stage in the process has been more synthetic than ever before. A process that’s increasingly an act of translation as much as it is one of quantification. After a year in which our realities have become more immediate, in which the focus has been on protecting our bodies from other bodies, any sense of a collective reality is going to rest on an acceptance that there are many realities. A megagallery opening in New York may have little effect on the art scene in New Delhi. A throbbing art fair in Shanghai may be of little concern to a struggling artist in London. Just as the art history we were taught at school (if we were fortunate enough to be taught it at all) may turn out to be a Swiss cheese of omissions spiced with a heavy dose of spin. One of the things ArtReview gets from each new iteration of its list, as its advisers attempt to whittle down the 400 or more people who were nominated for a spot, is an annual reminder of how much broader its vision could be.
There would be no protests, no calls for reform, no argument or debate if power (and the inequalities that come with it) did not play out in shaping the type of art that gets exposed or the way in which it is presented. An artist doesn’t necessarily get a major museum show, simply because they are ‘the best’. Such events tend to be the result of a combination of the social, economic and, at times, political interests of a group of individuals. People with some sort of skin in the game. Whether their interests and networks operate consciously or subconsciously, or for the benefit of the many or the few. Indeed, one of the reasons ArtReview’s power list was initiated, in 2002, was to promote a consciousness of this – to examine the operations of a world that is forever teetering on the brink of becoming a self-sustaining insider chumocracy, or little more than a pantomime commodity exchange. Which is not to say, of course, that the list doesn’t contain people who are worthy of respect and admiration, or who may be acting, producing or thinking in ways that are worth emulating. For ArtReview, at least, it most certainly does. But, like most things in the real world, it contains those we might individually cast as heroes or villains, and in that sense is a driver of discussion and debate. All of which is, perhaps, a longwinded way of saying that the Power 100 attempts to map out power as it is and not as we would wish it to be. That there’s a necessary distancing involved. ArtReview saves the likes for reviews, columns, lovers and Twitter. And when it can get it, for ice kachang. There’s extra love too for all those people (anonymous so as to avoid potential pressure and sanctions – believe ArtReview, those things happen) whose opinions and advice help this list come into being, and to the few on the list and the many unacknowledged here who keep the art and the ideas that come with it flowing and circulating, at times against the greatest of odds.
ArtReview’s Power 100 – the annual ranking of the most influential people in art – is out now